Cycling New Zealand's Beautiful North Island

Eleanor Hughes


Steer clear of New Zealand’s typical tourist routes and see the rural side by biking one of the New Zealand Cycle Trails, as a multi-day or single day ride. Picturesque trails take in forests, rural towns, rivers, backcountry roads, farmland, estuaries and the ocean. Providers can arrange packages that include bike rental, shuttles for riders/luggage and accommodation, or arrangements can be made yourself. Free to cycle, the following routes are suitable for most reasonably fit people.

Hauraki Rail Trail

The section from Thames to Te Aroha of this ride, which stretches 160 kilometres from Kaiaua in the north to Matamata, home of Hobbiton, in the south, will take in four small towns over three days. Once a gold-mining town, visitors can tour an underground mine in Thames before cycling to Paeroa along the paved track through farmland. Perhaps stop at the cheese factory along the way.

Paeroa, famous for its 7-metre high L&P bottle (a lemon juice and Paeroa Springs carbonated mineral water drink that was dreamed up here), is also known for its antique shops. Further down the trail, Karangahake Gorge is the most picturesque section of the route. Walk the Windows Walk loop at Karangahake where holes are blasted in the sides of tunnels giving river and gorge views. The trail traverses a one-kilometre tunnel, follows a river and passes gold-mining relics and Waikino Station Café. Catch a vintage train from here to Waihi, or ride to this popular summer beach spot. Perhaps visit a working mine with Waihi Gold Mine Tours. You’ll traverse more farmland on the way to Te Aroha, a town popular in the early 20th Century due to its hot springs’ apparent healing properties. Recuperate in the Te Aroha Mineral Spas or pools. 

Ride through mountain tunnels on the Hauraki Trail

Credit: Hauraki Rail Trail

Twin Coast Trail

This two-day ride of around 87 kilometres starts in Opua, just out of Paihia in the popular Bay of Islands. It’s also close to Waitangi where the Treaty of Waitangi, a historical document between Maori and European’s, was signed in 1840. A short ferry ride from Paihia, Russell was the country’s first capital. There's a lot of history here.

Twin Coast Trail takes riders alongside estuary, mangroves, and river, through farmland and bush with a few suspension bridges and a boardwalk. View distant sand dunes, Lake Omapere, and weathered timeworn farmhouses in the middle of nowhere. A steam train can be ridden for 3km into Kawakawa where the famous Hundertwasser toilets are situated. With a grass roof, ceramic tiles, bottle glass windows, mosaic tiling, and cobblestone flooring, these public toilets are a pleasure to use!

Information boards provide the history of the small towns that are occasionally ridden through. Enjoy a drink at the end of the trail in Horeke, where New Zealand’s first hotel overlooks the Hokianga Harbour and old weatherboard homes perched on piles over the water’s edge. Cyclists can continue on gravel road to Mangungu Mission House, site of the third signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, or to Wairere Boulders. Basalt rocks the size of small cars balance precariously on each other in a bush setting.

Suspension bridge along the twin coast trail

Credit: Twin Coast Cycle Trails

Timber Trail

Deep in the rural heart of North Island around 140km from Lake Taupo, a tourist mecca, this trail traverses the Pureora Forest with a little rural road riding. During the two-day ride of 84 kilometres through the native bush, you’ll get away from it all with little cellphone coverage. Hear the song of native birds such as kākā (bush parrot) and kererū (pigeon). Get the heart pumping up steep inclines, do some adventure riding over eight suspension bridges (including New Zealand’s longest and highest), and enjoy some awesome views over the forest and of nearby ridges. You can also learn about logging and rail history along the way. Riders can glamp the night on the Piropiro Flats in a self-catered tent under the stars, with your food and luggage delivered to you. Or if that’s ‘roughing it’ too much, there are two lodges in the vicinity. 

Traverse thick forests along the Timber trail

Credit: Timber Trail

Waikato River Trail

This scenic 105km trail predominantly follows New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato River, the entire way. Much of the ride undulates through changing scenery although there are a few steep sections that may see you pushing your bike, especially on a series of evil switchbacks! Get shuttled to the start at Atiamuri Dam from the small town of Putaruru, once a busy forestry town and not far from Te Waihou Walkway and Blue Spring, a stunning clear blue-green spring.

On the trail that takes you in amongst Totara, cabbage trees, Manuka, fern, and pine, you’ll cross two dams where the river thunders white as it drops from one side of the dam to the other far below. Ride swing bridges, admire the beautiful river and the odd speedboat on it, and marvel at the flora and fauna that surrounds the river. Small friendly villages close early evening, so find out what might be open beforehand or pack your own food.

Idyllic scenery along the Waikato River Trail

Credit: Waikato River Trails

Motu Trails

A four-day ride can be undertaken through this remote area beginning at Opotiki on the east coast of the Bay of Plenty, a popular summer town of around 9,000. Ride the relatively easy Dunes Trail across sand dunes with Pacific Ocean views the entire way. Information boards relate to local Maori history. The going gets tough on the Motu Road Trail, a gravel road which winds and climbs through the bush. Enjoy the hospitality at Toatoa Farm Stay in the middle of nowhere, and stay in an old post office converted into accommodation in Motu, a tiny village consisting of one main street and a school of perhaps 10 pupils. 

Backtrack to the Pakihi Track (more hills), then rejoice in downhill riding along the narrow bush track with a stream running alongside much of the way. At Weka Wilds, visitors can stay at New Zealand writer Barry Crump’s tiny, restored hut on farmland, which enjoys views over bush-covered ridges before returning to civilisation and Opotiki. You’ll really experience backcountry North Island.

Motu Road

Credit: Strike Photography

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